There can be few better holiday moments than the sight of one’s children screaming in terror as explosions light the air all around, followed by an evacuation sequence that brings to mind Saving Private Ryan.
It had started tamely enough. While spending a week at the Vilanova Park campsite, about 30 miles south of Barcelona, we were exploring the local town of Vilanova i la Geltrú to find a local festival being prepared.
This was the late afternoon. It was towards the end of the holiday and we had fully slipped into the Spanish routine of doing nothing in the heat of the morning and venturing out at dusk.
As we walked down the charming promenades towards the beach, we saw locals creating signs, banners and papier-mâché costumes on the theme of devils. How nice, we thought, failing to notice the boarded-up shop windows. We’ll come back and watch the parade.
The Catalan Correfoc involves people dressed as devils shooting fireworks at the crowd
Spectators line the street ready to run away when the firework-wielding revellers get too close
The festivities start at about 10pm and are utterly terrifying if you are not expecting it
After the beach and after dinner beside it, we strolled back into the centre of town. The crowds had gathered in the square, leaving a large space in the middle for the performance. It was easy to find a spot right at the front. In fact, the locals practically encouraged us. How lovely they were. How considerate.
There we stood as a family, waiting for the show to begin. At two minutes to 10pm, I decided to consult Google to find out when the thing was going to start and whether it would be worth the wait.
I quickly discovered that we were standing at the very heart of a Catalan Correfoc, or fire-run, where people dress as devils and shoot fireworks into the crowd. Protective clothing was a must, Wikipedia said. The thrill would come from running away.
In slow motion, I lowered my phone and looked up. The people around us were now putting on large hats and wrapping T-shirts around their faces. It was one minute to 10pm. I heard myself drawling to my wife, suggesting we move away from the front line. Then the clock struck the hour, the world sped up and the chaos began.
It started with a chain reaction of golden fireworks that had been strung above us all around the square. They went off with ear-splitting explosions just above our heads, showering us with jets of sparks.
The fire runners light their fireworks before unleashing them at spectators in the small town
The festival started with a chain reaction of golden fireworks that had been strung all around the square
It is advisable to wear large hats and face masks to protect you from the shooting fireworks
My kids – nine-year-old twins and an 11-year-old – jumped out of their skins and looked at me with betrayal and panic in their eyes, their faces flashing in the light of the explosions.
‘It’s all right,’ I mouthed. ‘It’s fun.’ Then the rockets went off with great screams and the procession started. Hundreds of people in terrifying devil costumes pranced in front of us, shooting fireworks into the crowd from their tridents. We didn’t stand a chance.
There followed what can only be described as an Evac Under Fire through the winding alleyways of the ancient town, as we negotiated trampling crowds, explosive devices and fiery demons and tried to find an escape. Some of the devils were even shooting fireworks from their heels.
It was bloody brilliant.
Actually, the holiday had been pretty good already. I’m a big fan of the Al Fresco campsites, which are scattered all over Europe. They offer mobile home holidays that are affordable and well-placed, and act as excellent bases from which to explore the local attractions.
The added advantage is that downtime is taken care of. When you tire of striking out to visit wineries, cathedrals and natural features, the campsite is on hand with its excellent swimming pools and entertainments.
There’s even a little go-kart track, which was great fun. In the evenings, shows included flamenco and a Castell – human tower – performance, with an option for the children to join in (on a small scale) afterwards.
The Vilanova campsite is a blissful haven of relaxation with excellent facilities
Vilanova boasts several swimming pools with regular pool activities and lifeguards
Children can enjoy a range of games, including outdoor table tennis, at the campsite
All this, combined with the feeling that you have your own little home that is rough-and-ready enough to cope with the strains of family life, makes for the ideal combination.
We drove up to Barcelona on several occasions. The highlight, of course, was a visit to the Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s masterpiece that is due to be completed in 2026 for the centenary of the master’s death.
The cathedral is familiar through pictures and television but it truly has to be seen to be believed. The scale is extraordinary and the bonkers vision that inspired it takes the breath away.
Important tip: Book ahead. The queues can be horrendous, but if you go online (sagradafamilia.org.en) a few months in advance, you can just waltz in on the day.
Pay a little extra for a trip up one of the towers, too, from which you are presented with a stunning vista of the city and a unique view of the cathedral’s architecture.
After a wander around the building – the audio tour is recommended, without which the symbolic architecture is emptied of significance – a trip into the heavens provides a fabulous contrast.
Smaller children can benefit from the little pool, which is shallow and has appropriate toys
Larger children will enjoy the extensive water slides, which offer safe thrills and spills
A seven-night stay at Vilanova Park for a family of up to six sharing a two-bedroom Rossini mobile home, starts at £1,225.
Travel by ferries, flights or train can also be arranged.
Please visit alfresco-holidays.com or call 0161 332 8900 for more details.
There are two towers on offer, one on the Nativity façade and one on the Passion façade. It’s the sort of choice that drives you into a frenzy of Googling, but the truth is they are much of a muchness.
Closer to the campsite, the countryside is stippled with lovely Catalan villages and towns worth exploring. Our two campsite representatives, Bev and Kev, were on hand for recommendations, and they were particularly keen on the coastal town of Sitges (pronounced, incidentally, seet-chehs).
With good reason. In the Sixties it was a hotbed of anti-Franco counterculture, and is well-known for its carnival and horror and fantasy film festival (both of which, sadly, take place off-season). In addition, its 17 beaches and ancient port with myriad seafood restaurants make for hours of blissful meandering.
Between lazy campsite days and intrepid cultural exploring, this was a well-balanced holiday that turned up constant surprises. Just be sure to Google the local festivals before you attend them. Whether it’s bulls, tomatoes or fireworks, the Spaniards just aren’t like us.